I know we're a ways away from the beginning of the season, but it's not too early to take a gander at some of the roster spot and playing time battles that should play out this spring. Whether it's a corral of Quad-A and non-tender guys duking it out for the fifth starter's spot on a non-contender or the young prospect trying to knock off the incumbent veteran, there are sure to be a bunch of competitions this spring to land time on the field in 2011. I thought it would be a decent time to start looking at some of those competitions today, as the players partaking in each competition become clearer every day that we close in on March.
One of the epic battles that's shaping up is the one in Arizona to replace Adam LaRoche as the team's everyday first baseman. While the D-Backs already have 24-year-old Brandon Allen on the 40-man roster, they've opted to add some other players to the mix by trading for Juan Miranda and signing Xavier Nady to a one-year deal. Many have expected Allen to be the team's first baseman at some point after he was acquired from Chicago for Tony Pena a couple years ago, but their recent additions would seem to indicate some skepticism as to whether he's ready to take in 500-600 at-bats with the big league club.
One definitely has to wonder if that skepticism is somewhat misplaced, though, given how great Allen's Triple-A numbers were last season. It's just not that easy to see Miranda, who's either 27 or 29 depending on the source, truly out-hitting the younger, more powerful Allen. That's not to say that Allen doesn't have his flaws. He's got some contact issues and his value lies solely in his offensive production, like many top prospects that primarily play first base. But I'm just not really sure that Miranda brings more to the table than Allen.
Whether you're looking at the scouting reports or the statistics, it's not terribly easy to see Arizona's line of thinking regarding the possibility of playing Miranda over Allen. When looking for a long-term option at first base, you generally would expect the guys with youth and power on their side to be at the front of the line. That's pretty much where Allen lies at this point. His plus power is undoubtedly better than Miranda's, which Baseball America described as "fringy" in their analysis of the Miranda trade a few weeks ago, and Allen is at least roughly three years younger than Miranda, depending on who you're asking.
Beyond that, it's not that easy to pick out Miranda's advantages. He might be a better contact hitter than Allen, but his approach sways from time to time, and he doesn't walk remotely as much. So while he strikes out slightly less than Allen, he could probably stand to alter his approach given his suboptimal walk rate. Compared to Allen, who walked nearly 18% of the time in Reno last season, Miranda just can't really stack up. And the fact of the matter is that this is all reflected in their numbers. Miranda's spent the past three seasons at the minor league's highest level, putting up a good-but-not-great .281/.374/.481 line over 301 games. Allen's spent most of the past two seasons at the same level, batting .277/.395/.541 over 160 games.
If we're talking about this solely from an Allen vs. Miranda perspective, I really don't see a way that one could justify giving Miranda the majority of the playing time. Neither player has a great deal left to learn in the minors, as their Triple-A numbers show, and given their respective ages they're not likely to take massive leaps in skill level. What you see, for the most part, is what you're likely to get. And when one guy is younger, walks more, and hits for more power, all the while putting the ball in play at a similar clip, I'm not really sure how you take the other guy.
I will add one possible twist to the situation, though, and that's the possibility that Arizona tries to push Allen into left field to make room for Miranda at first. The primary playing time casualty of that move would likely the guy currently penned into left field, Gerardo Parra. There's no doubt that Allen is a better hitter than the 23-year-old Parra, who's batted .277/.317/.389 in 884 PA with Arizona over the past two seasons, but the bigger question was touched on by FanGraphs when the Miranda deal happened: Does Allen's offensive advantage outweigh Parra's clearly superior defensive skills? They didn't come to a conclusion in their analysis, and I'm not totally sure what's the case, either. My initial reaction is to believe that the club would be best off with Allen at first and Parra in left.
But there's a bigger point to be made here, and it's that Allen deserves to play somewhere. I'm not totally committed to preferring the Allen-1B/Parra-LF alignment or the Miranda-1B/Allen-LF alignment, but I feel pretty strongly that the club has no business starting Parra in left and Miranda at first, with Allen toiling away in Triple-A.